They are almost impossible to miss – shiny little stones, delicately painted and lacquered to protect against the elements – hidden among trees, walk paths, and inside shops. They are painted rocks, and this artistic phenomenon is taking over Astoria. With Facebook members totaling just over 4,000, the area’s most organized rock painting group, Astoria Rocks, has pushed an otherwise casual hobby into a full-fledged cultural happening. With so many participants one can’t help but question what the draw is to such a seemingly child-like pastime.
Local business owner, Chelsea Johnsen, believes she has an answer. “The first time I found out about Astoria Rocks was by finding one within my own shop.” Chelsea’s shop Doe and Arrow is located in the heart of downtown Astoria. “I remember thinking that it’s such a sweet idea. It’s just a fun way for the community to get involved around town.”
Community involvement seems to be an important component of the fun for most of the participants. “I think the best part is that everyone has that same magical feeling whenever they find the rocks, knowing that someone else is going to find theirs too. It’s a great way of bringing the community together,” Chelsea says.
Chelsea isn’t the only one who got turned on to the “game” by finding one of the rocks for herself. Stumbling across a random rock by accident is how most people seem to find out about the activity. The Astoria Rocks’ founder, Mindy Bizzell, is largely responsible for that. After the death of her son in 2009 Mindy looked for ways to make the world a little brighter, starting with her community. “We spent a whole day buying coffee for strangers, handing out gift cards, buying flowers and leaving them on doorsteps, and connecting with homeless folks. That day had left us feeling so good we had become open to a larger project centered around kindness,” she says.
After finding a few painted rocks that made her smile in her hometown of Poulsbo, Washington, Mindy decided that painting rocks and hiding them in Clatsop County would be the perfect project for her and her family. “It was fun for my kids, and it was virtually free for all – it seemed very inclusive, so we ran with it.” Now Astoria Rocks is one of the most popular groups in the Astoria area.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe how many people are in to painting and hiding rocks,” Mindy says. The group is aware that some skeptics share that very sentiment, but Mindy believes that the shared kindness and community togetherness the activity encourages is the reason so many people continue to play. “It’s been wonderful, and it just shows how eager people are to do for others and to give of themselves and their talents for the pure, entirely free, enjoyment of others.”
While the message of kindness is pervasive within the community of rock hiders, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the social media side of the game. Vashti Martell, an outspoken local with a young son, said she feels that having a Facebook page for the group introduces ego into the activity. “It takes all humbleness away from the kind act of brightening someone’s day with a painted rock.” Many of the painted rocks have Facebook images on them, and some of them even boast instructions to post a photo of the rock once found.
Vashti remembers when hiding painted rocks was less visible. “It used to be a fun and creative project you could do with your children that got them away from screens.” She and her son still participate in painting and hiding, but emphasize the anonymity aspect of it. “We don’t post any rocks online and don’t encourage people who find our rocks to do so. We just want people to find something positive in a random place.”
Whether players take part in the social media side of the project or not, some may feel that hiding painted rocks is simply a fad – this year’s Pokémon Go or a community-friendly form of geocaching, but with kindness at its core many people in the area hope that it’s more. “I never had any doubt that this community would make Astoria Rocks a real ‘thing.’ There are just so many generous, kind, and talented people here,” says Mindy.